When Books Bring Baggage

Suite Française
(UK/France/Canada/Belgium, 107 min.)
Dir. Saul Dibb, Writ. Matt Charman, Saul Dibb
Starring: Michelle Williams, Kristin Scott Thomas, Matthias Schoenaerts, Ruth Wilson, Sam Riley, Margot Robbie
Matthias Schoenaerts and Michelle Williams in Suite Française.
eOne Films.

Some books have baggage. Irène Némirovsky’s Suite Française presents an odd conundrum for adaptation since it isn’t a Herculean maze of prose that deems some novels “unfilmable.” Suite Française is a relatively contained book—two parts plus some invaluable appendices—and the prose is clear, descriptive, and virtually filmable as written. The tricky part is that Némirovsky never finished the book because she died in Auschwitz in 1942 when only two of the planned five parts of Suite Française were drafted. Even her own death appears as an editorial note amidst the chronological correspondence of an appendix that illuminates how this unfinished work found publication after sixty years of hiding.

Perhaps the story behind Suite Française is simply more interesting than the book itself, and the adaptation therefore struggles to unpack the weight it brings to the screen. Suite Française, the movie, has a significant legacy to uphold. While it somewhat satisfyingly dramatizes the melodrama of some of Némirovsky’s novel, the film ultimately misses a terrific opportunity to be in dialogue with book and turn this adaptation into art.

This disappointing, but nevertheless pleasing, adaptation comes in a handsome package by writer/director Saul Dibb (The Duchess) and co-writer Matt Charman. Suite Française takes the second part of Némirovsky’s book (“Dolce”), which presents an episode in the town of Bussy, which is finally feeling the effects of German occupation when a mass exodus of Parisians comes to town and the townspeople are forced to billet Nazi soldiers who storm the town. Lucille Angellier (Michelle Williams) and her cranky mother-in-law (Kristin Scott Thomas) get the pleasure of housing an officer named Bruno (Matthias Schoenaerts), who causes Lucille to blush even though her husband’s away fighting the Germans. Forbidden romance ensues as the townspeople resist the Nazi Occupation and Lucille discovers that siding up close to the enemy is the best bad idea in town.

Suite Française, a poetic expression of resistance, becomes a soap opera on the screen as Lucille flirts with her conflicted desires and her neighbours hiss that she’s a Nazi whore while also exploiting her friendliness with Bruno to seek favours for which they’re too weak to ask. Suite Française, however, offers perfectly good wartime soapsuds. The drama remains consistently watchable as the townspeople, including the Labaries (Sam Riley and Ruth Wilson), a farming couple that receives a particularly nasty Nazi officer; sweaty Celine (Margot Robbie), who confronts the same desires that Lucille hides; and the Viscount and Viscountess de Montmort (Lambert Wilson and Harriet Walter), who epitomize the entitlement of the upper class, all sneak around at night and melodramatically flirt with love and death. The cinematography by Eduard Grau is serves the period and soapiness alike, while the music by Rael Jones ensures that Suite Française swoons.
Kristin Scott Thomas in Suite Française.
eOne Films.

Williams conveys Lucille’s emotional conflict nicely and subtly, although she struggles with the accent somewhat, and she carries the melodrama smartly and intimately. Scott Thomas stands out in the respectable ensemble as Madame Angellier offers a deliciously crotchety resister who refuses to march to German time and remains resolute in her ways to uphold the class system by collecting rent from her tenants and hoarding all the groceries she can. The elder Angellier has moments of perfectly calculated brittleness that humanize a character holding on to the last shards of a life that seems to be falling apart. The few moments where Scott Thomas breaks her character’s shell are both dramatic highlights and moments of comic relief—and reminders that anyone can do the right thing in the end. The Angelliers are arguably the most readily cinematic of Némirovsky’s characters.

Suite Française omits the book’s first half (“Storm in June”), although a snippet of newsreel footage contextualizes the fall of Paris, while two of the part’s central characters—Mr. and Mme. Michaud—cross paths with Lucy and Madame Angellier in the film’s riveting opening that sees Nazi bombers attack the Parisians marching away from the city. (Wilson’s Madeline Labarie also connects the two halves of the book with the charity she offers to refugees.) The lack of the first half of the two-part structure somewhat dulls Suite Française’s incisively droll take on the aristocracy, but Dibb and Chartrand’s adaptation nevertheless captures the coldness of class divides that complicate survival in war time. The adaptation intertwines the dramatic weight of Lucy’s attraction to Bruno with her allegiance to the town as the Montmorts clash with the Labaries and, in turn, make Bussy a microcosm for power struggles around Europe in the Nazi occupation.

The film most notably falters, however, by offering narrative closure for Lucy’s story as the drama of Suite Française ends with a move towards Paris. The resolution proves unsatisfying both narratively and emotionally because it cleanses a story that did not end well. One significance of Némirovsky’s death for Suite Française, the book, is that “Dolce” ends with a departure, but with no real sense of an ending. The overall lack of resolution mixes with a grain of optimism in the image of German soldiers departing Bussy. Lucille doesn’t know how the war is going to end when “Dolce” gets its final page, and the film’s clunky voiceover that recalls the end of the war feels inappropriate whereas the novel’s speculation of where the war might lead is compelling and unsettling alike s it puts the reader in the headspace of a writer who tried to imagine an end to the war, but never lived to see it. The openness poignantly underscores the collective loss of the war through the abrupt departure of the author and the incompleteness of her work. The film tries to honour the author’s memory by adding a few post-script title cards that note Némirovsky’s death prior to the book’s completion, but these additional notes ultimately try to add emotional currency in the posthumous legacy of Suite Française and of the voice that outlived the Holocaust. It’s an important note that isn’t of service to the film.

The legacy of Suite Française is so integral to the book itself that Némirovsky truly needs to be an ever-present ghost in the film for the adaptation to work. The film demands a structure akin to The Hours that makes Némirovsky a character in the film who crafts these movements of a musical composition (as she planned) that ultimately hang in the air without a fermata. Such an adaptation isn’t a difficult task since films such as Adaptation., The French Lieutenant’s Woman, or The Hours are varying works that make the artistic process part of the film’s dramatic energy. The film might have even furthered the movements of Némirovsky’s composition (which gets a nice motif in the piece that Bruno crafts throughout the film) by using the author’s rise from the ashes to further the story of Némirovsky’s book, as Suite Française continues to write a remarkable story long after the her death. What comes to the screen in this Suite Française is a mildly satisfying adaptation, but it’s also a fascinating case study of the layers of meaning that live between the words of the text itself.

Rating: ★★★ (out of ★★★★★)

Suite Française screens in Ottawa at The ByTowne until July 23rd and in Toronto at TIFF Lightbox.